I usually get the call as I am sitting down for dinner, or as I am arriving home from work. I am tired; the moment is inopportune and they must know that, but they call me anyway: I’m from the Alumni House at The University of Chicago, how are you doing this evening? The friendly back and forth goes on for a few minutes until the underclassman from my alma mater gets to his true purpose and asks for money. In addition to the calls, I also sometimes get as many as two or three fundraising emails a day from my school. Needless to say, I have stopped answering calls from a 773 area code, but like a brokenhearted ex-lover, the alumni house can’t quite seem to get the hint.
I have nothing against my school—in fact, with time away, I have come to nurse an affection for it that I could never have anticipated during my four years as a student. But I am frustrated with the relentless fundraising. Their money-raising techniques are about as manipulative as characters in French novels: During phone calls, a younger student will offhandedly mention the current term, as though he’s trying to have a conversation with you: well, you know how it is, dealing with the midterms and the snow. Other tactics involve emails promising alumni a spot on something called the ‘Honor Roll’ in exchange for a donation, trying to sway us into giving money by using the familiar terminology of academia to reawaken our old scholastic ambitions. My personal favorite was when UChicago tried to tempt us with socks embroidered with the names of philosophers. Despite my resistance, these tactics were ultimately successful; I didn’t fall for the socks, but the postcard of my campus on a winter evening and the follow up phone call won me over.
The email spam and inconvenient phone calls, however, aren’t the problem. It is the fundamental unseemliness of universities’ relentless solicitation of donations from recent alumni in a country where the current balance of outstanding student loans is 1/15 of the nation’s entire GDP. More than half of recent graduates at the time I finished school in 2012 were unemployed or underemployed, and many more were mal-employed—working in fields other than those offered by their majors. Universities must realize that many of us cannot spare the donation required to get a mug with our class year on it. Just a few weeks ago Harvard received the largest donation in the college’s history, but recent Harvard grads are nevertheless still getting requests. Donations from recent graduates can’t possibly account for more than a fraction of a school’s endowment—so why do they pursue them so tenaciously?
Students typically won’t let you off the phone before lowering the requested donation to an absolute minimum and asking for a single dollar. This is because university rankings are based partially on donations—and not only on the amount donated, but on the number of donations. Alumni gifts, according to college-ranking boards like the Princeton Review, are a good way of determining both how much students like their schools, and of how well they do after graduation. So, although more than half of the students in my graduating class had no full-time job prospects or were working jobs that were far below their level of education after graduation, schools feel determined to solicit donations, no matter how small, in order to maintain their spots in the all-important college rankings. 5,000 donations of 20 dollars might be worth more in terms of rankings than two donations of $1 million.
The endless fundraising aimed at recent alumni are also a strategic move: a 1990s study on patterns in alumni donations found that past donations are a remarkably strong indicator that an alumnus is likely to give major gifts to the school later in life. After all, it is difficult to rationalize donating money one year and not the next. Overwhelmed with nostalgia, I made the mistake of donating 25 dollars to my class fund during the last week of my senior year. I have since learned that donating money is probably a lot like inviting a vampire into one’s home.
If anything, the data on recent graduates should be an indication that universities should develop programs that actively help find employment for students and alumni. If that were the case, not only would we have the means to donate, but many more recent graduates might actually be inclined to. It can hardly be a coincidence that the average unemployment and underemployment rate among 2012 graduates—53 percent—seems to correspond almost directly to the 47 percent of students in my class at UChicago who were able to donate money last year. Short of targeting exclusively the alumni who had the wisdom to major in economics or engineering, or similarly profitable fields, the solution may be to avoid approaching new alumni altogether—roughly half of them are living at home. Another way of saying is that if schools feel entitled to our money after graduation, then we should feel similarly entitled to jobs.
Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for The New York Times, Tablet, The Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.
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